Budget Travel: European Spring Break

Europe. For Spring Break? You must be joking right? Surely in this time of economic crisis and tightened budgets the European continent is out of reach for most, especially for the student traveler looking to save a few bucks on their Spring Break. And that’s why we’re here to tell you just how remarkably affordable AND easy it is to spend that week off partying it up in Prague, museum-hopping in Madrid or beer drinking in Berlin.

Believe it or not, Spring is one of the best times to visit most European countries. Most travelers wait until summer to hit the continent, but that’s exactly why Europe has a reputation for being so crazy expensive. By traveling in the off-season you’ll have access to some incredible deals on airfare, not to mention you’ll get most of the museums, restaurants and trains all to yourself.

So why blow all that money on a Spring Break trip to Florida, the Caribbean or Mexico? For not much more money, you could be hanging out in world class museums during the day and partying till dawn at some of the world’s best nightspots. How’s that for some Spring Break fun? Come along on Gadling’s Budget Travel Guide to Spring Break in Europe.
The European Airfare Game
I like to think of finding a cheap airfare to Europe as a game. Getting from North America can often be one of the biggest expenses facing the European budget traveler – an obstacle that often threatens to break the bank. But fear not, with a little flexibility and planning, you too can win the European airfare challenge. Here’s how to do it:

  • Check the “Big Five” – the vast majority of European flights from the U.S. are funneled through just five airports: London Heathrow, Paris Charles De Gaulle, Frankfurt am Main, Madrid Barajas and Amsterdam Schipol. Even if you plan on heading somewhere else, flying into one of these hubs and then connecting elsewhere is often the cheapest option. Once you arrive, consider grabbing a flight on a European low-cost carrier or taking the train to your final destination.
  • Use the Budget Carriers – Europe is known for its cheap inter-country low-cost carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet. Even if you fly into one of the “Big Five,” the low-cost carriers ensure that getting to your final destination can still be a bargain. For the full rundown on the low-cost carrier game, make sure to read Scott’s great Low Cost Carrier post from last week.
  • Be flexible – as Grant pointed in this cheap airfare post, finding reasonable tickets to Europe is all about being flexible. Try and avoid flying on the most popular days like Friday and Sunday and schedule your trip at off-peak times. And don’t get your mind dead-set on one particular destination. Is London showing up too expensive? How about Dublin instead? Can’t find a cheap European flight out of Philadelphia? What if you took the train up to New York for your departure? The more options you give yourself, the more money you can save.

So just how much money are we talking for Spring airfares? A quick search of Kayak for European filghts in March pulls up flights from New York to Dublin ($308), Madrid ($367) and Berlin ($380) among plenty of other options. Boston has fares to Dublin for $365 and Chicago has flights to Frankfurt starting at $424. Anything to Europe for under $450 is practically a steal.

Where to Stay
Not surprisingly, the fallback option for many budget-minded European Spring Breakers is going to be the hostel. Sites like Hostel World let you review ratings and prices and make bookings right from the web.

But if you’re like me and you’ve reached an age when a dude strumming his acoustic guitar in the lounge until 3am is not going to cut it, consider renting an apartment. Most decent size European cities offer a thriving market in vacation rental apartments, many of which can be had for not much more than your average night’s stay on an uncomfortable bunk bed. Check out sites like VRBO or Craigslist’s “Vacation Rental” category and look up something you like. Couch Surfing can also be a great option for thrifty travelers looking for a more adventurous experience staying with a local.

Top Three Spring Break Cities
It’s not any fun to be in Europe if you don’t have the money to enjoy it. Here are our picks for the best “cheap” European destinations that mix great nightlife with some interesting sights at a lower cost.

  • Berlin – Berlin offers the best of both worlds for Spring Breakers, combining world class art and culture with one of the world’s more hedonistic and creative nightlife scenes. Not to mention it’s one of the cheapest cities of all the big European capitals. During the day make a stop at the Pergamon, home to one of the world’s greatest collections of Greek and Middle Eastern antiquities (8 euros). Art lovers should check out the Hamburger Bahnof which houses works from 20th Century masters like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg (free on Thursdays!). Berlin is also home to a thriving music scene. Electronic music fans should head to the Watergate Club, where partiers can dance till dawn against the club’s floor-to-ceiling windows along the River Spree.
  • Dublin – Dublin has the honor of being one of the closest cities to the U.S. mainland, ensuring a cheap flight over. That said, Dublin is also hugely entertaining base for a Spring Break week, offering a lively pub scene in the Temple Bar area, as well as interesting sights like the Book of Kells at Trinity College and the National Museum of Ireland. Booze-lovers can head for either the Jameson Distillery or the Guinness Storehouse to learn more about how the beverages are made and get a free sample.
  • Prague – Prague is the Spring Break trip’s secret weapon. The Czech capital is not yet on the Euro, meaning your dollar goes a lot farther and there’s also plenty to see and great nightlife to be had. Start your visit with a trip to Prague Castle, an imposing fortress that sits across the river from the main city center. On your way you’ll cross the atmospheric Charles Bridge. It’s free and the wide stone footbridge is lined with vendors, street artists and ornate statues of the town’s historical figures. End your evening with some Jazz at one of Prague’s many underground Jazz clubs or dancing at the Roxy, which operates out of an old movie theater.

European Money-Saving Tricks
So you snagged an insanely cheap flight, you’re staying in an apartment or hostel, and you’re traveling to one of Europe’s bargain-priced cities. What else can you do to keep costs manageable? Never fear, here’s a few more money-saving tips to make that Europe trip all the more affordable.

  • Carpe Diem – as Latin majors can attest, Carpe Diem translates as “seize the day.” And with the Dollar to Euro exchange rate hovering at its most favorable point in almost 2 years, there’s never been a better time to take advantage. Skip this Spring Break and who knows if your money will go nearly as far for Spring Break 2010.
  • Eating In – sure, it might seem painful to skip out on a plate of tapas or that extra croissant, but cooking your own meals can save you some serious money (while also being quite delicious). Virtually all hostels have a kitchen for guests – not to mention if you rent an apartment you’ll have a kitchen all to yourself. And shopping for fresh local ingredients at markets like La Boqueria in Barcelona or the Campo de Fiori in Rome can be a fun experience in and of itself. Feel bad about passing all that great food? Consider using the Euros you have left over at the end of your trip on a big fancy meal to make up for your frugality!
  • City Pass – are you planning to visit museums and attractions like it was going out of style? Many European capitals offer city passes, which bundle admission to a variety of attractions along with unlimited access to public transportation for one price. Sites like European City Cards sell passes for a variety of European tourist destinations. And check your guidebook – many museums offer FREE admission on certain days of the week.
  • Public Transportation – whenever possible, stick to the metro and buses. Most European transit systems are extensive and will take you just about anywhere in the city confines for one low price. And consider buying an unlimited pass for the length of your stay – it will be much cheaper than paying as you go if you plan to take a lot of trips.

Budget Travel: Ride the rails

Travel by train means that you must enjoy “getting there” as much as “being there.” Since it takes a lot longer than flying, you have to make transportation part of the experience. Don’t just think about hopping on a train to get somewhere. Instead, you’re going to the train! And, eventually, it will lead someplace.

Even with fantastic deals on flights right now, travel is still expensive. A long flight followed by a long stay in a hotel adds up quickly. Because the economy is circling the drain right now, a lot of frequent travelers are changing their habits. Vacations that would normally last a few weeks are being pared back to a few days. Trips abroad become trips in the United States. Dreams of Hawaii are confined to the lower 48. Weeks are becoming weekends.

This is where the train can help.

If you’re looking for a weekend getaway, deals by rail abound, and you can replace short flights with reasonable train rides. You’ll pay a fraction of what you would for a flight, enjoy the journey and still have plenty of time at your eventual destination.

Before we even talk about at train fares, let’s look at the hidden cost of flying. I’m not referring to taxes and fees … we all know about that. Instead, reflect on your last trip to the airport. I just flew out of JFK two days ago. It cost me close to $60 to get a town car from my Upper West Side digs. While that sounds like a relatively luxurious way to roll, a taxi would have cost about the same. I could have taken the subway, but that would have required lugging my baggage around for two hours. I’ll have to pay the same amount to get home from the airport next week. Transportation from the airport to my hotel wasn’t as bad, but it’s still another hidden cost.

If you don’t live in a city, you may wind up driving yourself to the airport. Depending on the length of your trip, that could cost at least as much as my town car rides, maybe more. There is no way around it. Expect to add at least $100 to the cost of your airfare to get a real sense of how much your flight is going to cost.Trains are different. I can catch Amtrak from Penn Station, which is a short subway ride ($2), or around $7 by taxi. When I get to my destination – for me, it’s usually Boston or Washington, D.C. – I can do the same. Train stations tend to be in the cities to which you’re traveling, while airports are on the outskirts (at best).

You also save time.

A flight from New York to Boston, for example, takes less than an hour. But, I have to spend 45 minutes in a car en route to the airport. And, I have to spend at least 45 minutes at the airport waiting for my flight. For peak travel times, it’s smart to arrive at least an hour early. Then, depending on traffic, it’s at least another half hour from Logan Airport into Boston. All in, my trip is more than three hours long. By train, it’s 15 minutes to Penn station, three hours on the train and 10 minutes from South Station to the downtown.

Okay, since it’s break-even on time, let’s talk about cost. You can get lucky with prices on these short run flights, but you have to be careful. If you wind up on a peak time for business travelers – who don’t usually shop for bargains – you’re competing for space and paying a premium. This happens with the train, as well, but not to the same extent.

Most of Amtrak’s hot deals are on the East Cost right now, where a roundtrip ticket almost anywhere seems to cost less than $50 for a weekend getaway. Out west, there are plenty of low-priced tickets, as well, including a round trip between San Diego and San Francisco for less than $150.

If you need some peace for the weekend, the train may be the best option you never thought about. There aren’t many good flights for under $100, even for the short runs that you could cover by train. And, you’ll avoid the hidden costs of air travel. The best part? There’s no flight attendant galley for Uma Thurman to disrupt!

Budget Travel: Hop on a bus

Depending upon the time frame you have to go from one point to the next, bus travel is a worthy option when looking for a bargain. Last summer, I opted for Greyhound as a way to get back from New York City to Columbus with my son. It was a perfect trip with few kinks. At the time, the bus fare was much cheaper than a flight, and I didn’t want to drive myself.

A few years back, I made a similar trip (from Cleveland to New York City) with my daughter when she was five with equally favorable results. And, well before that, I traveled with a friend for three months across the United States, criss-crossing from Kentucky to California–mostly by bus.

Here is a look at bus options in addition to Greyhound as a way to save money. Plus, a bus gives you the opportunity to watch the scenery glide by and hear songs like Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” playing in your head. [The photo posted by bobster1985 is of the Greyhound bus terminal circa 1936.]

First up, Greyhound: With a network that stretches across the United States to 2,300 different destinations, Greyhound is more likely to get you closer to the places you might want to go. If you’re heading to a major city, golden. If you have a small town in mind or a national park, lots of luck.

When my friend and I were mapping out our trip, we nixed several places because getting there was impossible, or too inconvenient. We also found out that the further west we went, the later a bus departed–or the earlier it arrived. However, we spent a whole day Salt Lake City and Denver without staying overnight by arriving early in the morning and leaving after midnight. Granted, it’s not a picnic at a bus stop in the middle of the night, but it’s not awful.

Because a Greyhound bus tickets can be purchased the day of a trip at the station, you can build flexibility into a vacation. When we bought our tickets, we figured out the route we wanted to take and the stops we could make in order to maximize our tickets. One leg went between Lexington, Kentucky to Racine, Wisconsin with stops in Louisville and Chicago.

For bigger savings, Greyhound has several budget options. Book ahead and on-line for up to a 20% discount. Right now, you can purchase a ticket 14-days in advance and get anywhere in the U.S. for no more than $99 one-way if you’re traveling on Monday through Thursday. At other times, a 14-days in advance purchase can get you a 35 % discount, and 7-days in advance can save 20%.

Unlike air travel, children, senior citizens and students also get discounts. Children under 2 can travel for free. Children ages 2-11 can get a ticket for 40% an adult rate. Seniors can get a 5 % discount. If you’re a student, with a Student Advantage Discount Card, you can save 15%.

Find out if you can get a Family & Friends companion fare. It’s still listed on the Greyhound website. If you’re traveling with another person, one person pays full fare, and the other person pays 50%. For a parent traveling with two children, each child pays 50%.

About Trailways and Peter Pan: Trailways is included in the Greyhound network. In many cases, you may be on Trailways bus for part of the trip and then switch to Greyhound. Greyhound specializes in coast to coast travel, while Trailways service is focused within distinct regions. A Trailways issued ticket is good on a Greyhound bus.

Peter Pan bus line operates in New England and is one way to get to smaller cities and towns. I’ve taken Peter Pan to Wooster, MA. Booking on-line offers cheaper ticket options. Like Trailways, Peter Pan dovetails with Greyhound.

Megabus: When Josh wrote about Megabus last October, a couple of people left comments giving a thumbs up to their experience. Touted as having bus fares as low as $1, bus fares go up as seats sell. As of last May, the company had served 1,000,000 passengers. The company now offers service to seventeen Midwest cities, seven West Coast cities, eight East Coast cities, and into Canada, however buses have very specific routes, so the reach may not be as wide as you need. You can also hop on a Megabus in Great Britain.

The map on the website shows the bus routes, and a drop down menu lets you know which destinations are connected to each other. For example, from Columbus, I can only go to Chicago, Cincinnati or Indianapolis on one ticket. From Chicago I can head to Minneapolis. In order to get to Memphis or Kansas City, other destinations, I’d have to go to Chicago first. If the price is right, why not? Otherwise take Greyhound.

When booking a Megabus ticket, you can block out several return date options if you want flexibility. As a point to be aware of, you can only bring one checked bag that doesn’t exceed 50 pounds, and one small carry-on bag. Greyhound allows for more.

Unlike Greyhound that operates out of bus stations, Megabus has specific bus stops that may or may not be near a bus station, but stops are clearly marked. Although most of Megabus’s business is done on-line, you can make reservations by calling their telephone reservation line.

I’ve never ridden a Megabus, but from the the description, they remind me of the more deluxe buses that went between Hsinchu, Taiwan where I used to live and Taipei–roomier than Greyhound and quicker because there are less pick-up points in between.

BoltBus: Grant took a BoltBus from Washington, D.C. to New York City last March and was generally pleased. Similar to Megabus, BoltBus offers an inexpensive option for going between Boston, NYC, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Ticket prices start as low as $1. Like Megabus, Boltbus also offers Wi-Fi access and plug-ins. Grant, though said that the Wi-Fi wasn’t working for him.

To buy a ticket, go to www.boltbus.com to purchase on-line. For the best deal, it’s recommended that you purchase tickets a couple weeks in advance. You can buy a ticket buy showing up the day of departure, but you’ll pay more and may not get a seat.

If you do buy a BoltBus ticket, be sure of your travel date because tickets are non-refundable. (Megabus allows you to change for a fee) Like on Greyhound and Megabus, children under the age of two can travel for free with an adult.

Chinatown Bus: Last year I found out about the “Chinese Bus” that leaves Columbus for New York City, every night (I think). Since then, I’ve discovered a vast network of buses that connect various cities to Chinatown. If you choose this option, book early on-line to make sure you get a seat, but be prepared that you may have to wait for another bus since buses fill up.

Like Boltbus, you can only buy a ticket on-line. Unlike Megabus, you must have a printed out boarding pass in order to get on the bus. Also, like Boltbus, tickets are non-refundable. (For more answers to questions you might have, click here.)

Departure cities range from Mobile, Alabama to Syracuse, New York and Spartanburg, South Carolina. This company also offers vacation package tours. There’s a three-day tour from NYC to Toronto that takes in Niagara Falls and Thousand Islands, for example. Excluding meals and admission fees, the tour costs $190 per person for a double occupancy room. If you buy two, the third person goes for free.

For a look at what traveling on a Chinatown Bus may be like, click here. One detail to know beforehand is that before you hop on one of these buses, make sure you are getting on the right one. Several leave from the same stop. Now, that really does sound like Taiwan.

An advantage of this bus over Greyhound is that it makes less stops so you can arrive at your destination more quickly. However, like Greyhound, departure times are hit and miss. The schedule, in a way, is a suggestion of when a bus might leave. Still, don’t arrive late or you might be out of luck.

Within the Chinatown bus offerings, The Fung-Wah Bus only travels between New York and Boston. You can either buy a ticket on-line or at the ticket office at 138 Canal Street.

Another company with the same service is Lucky Star. Currently, there is a promotion where you can pay $1 for a one-way fare, but this is first come, first serve.

For other bus company options, check out RK Chin, a journey through Chinatown. There are a few more you may want to consider.

Budget Travel: Three steps to a cheaper car rental

Three main components go into any vacation package: Hotel, Airplane and Vehicle bookings. Once you can get around and have a place to sleep, activities and food can just fall into place as the days roll in.

Here at Gadling we’re covering all of the niches of vacation bookings in our Budget series. Earlier in the week was plane tickets. Later, will be hotel bookings. Today’s focus? Getting a good deal on your car rental.

It’s not as difficult as you think. The same booking engines (Kayak, Expedia etc.) used to find your bargain basement airplane tickets can be used to find cars as well. But with car rentals, the strategy is a bit different. Most of the time, airfare prices that are quoted from a search engine are fares that you’re stuck with until the bitter end. With car rentals, that’s the point from which you start.

From that marker, you optimize you booking in three ways:

  1. Join the club
  2. Get a coupon
  3. Be Flexible!

We’ll start with Joining the Club.
Like most hotel, airline and credit card brands, car rental companies will do anything they can to hook you into their product. By making you believe that you’re loved, you’re more likely to stick around, identify with them and feel better about yourself. Happiness is money.

National‘s Emerald program, for example, means absolutely nothing. Anyone off the street can join, get the card and walk to the Emerald Aisle when booking, it just takes time to follow the right links, sign up for service and fill in the forms.

Being a member, however, affords discounts. Coupon codes for Emerald members float around the internet freely, and by being in the “club” you’re entitled to these rates.

The same applies for basic membership in many other rental agencies — sign up for basic service and you’ll immediately see the benefit. Furthermore, you get the added bonus of getting through the line at the counter faster (or often bypassing it) and earning points, so it’s a win-win situation.

Get a Coupon

The internet is RIFE with coupon codes for car rentals. If you want a good place to start, check the repository at flyertalk.com, where coupons should be filed under each specific agency.

As a word of waning, remember that different policies and insurance coverage come with each contract code or coupon. You might get a great deal by renting under the Missouri Alligator Hunters contract ID, for example, but after you get into that fender bender, you also might find out that all insurance is waived. Just make sure you read the fine print and know what you’re getting yourself into.

That said, many a coupon code that we have found online have resulted in huge (40-50% discounts) over the rack search engine rate. Never, ever book without a coupon.

Be Flexible

Being flexible in pickup time, location and vehicle has its benefits, but some days, your favorite car company just doesn’t offer the best price on your itinerary. It’s difficult breaking free from your preferred carrier when you’ve worked so hard to earn that “granite status” that gets you the free windshield wash fluid, but you have to remember: most car rental agencies are charging you way too much to begin with. If they can’t offer a competitive rate, you can’t let their perks sway you. Join the competitor’s rewards program, do the research and book the cheapest fare. Hey, you might like the vehicle that you get to drive.


The nice thing about vehicle rentals is that getting a good deal is less time dependent than in working with airplane tickets. There is almost a higher supply than demand for cars, so usually a near term rental isn’t much more expensive than a reservation that you make three months out. Airplane seats, conversely, often sell out.

So take your time. Book your airplane tickets first, hotel second and spend a while shopping around for car rentals. Get the perfect convergence of membership rewards and coupon codes lined up, and you just might drive away with a bargain.